Using insights gleaned from Hurricane Sandy, state legislators moved yesterday to strengthen and consolidate coastline protections to mitigate damage from future storms.
After a series of afternoon hearings turned up limited opposition, the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee released five bills that would update environmental regulations and shift some decisions away from municipalities and into the hands of higher-level governmental and regional entities.
Taken separately, the bills would:
allow counties to take over beach operations from willing localities;
require the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to update its Shore Protection Master Plan;
restrict the DEP’s authority to waive permits for construction work that would eliminate or shrink a sand dune;
allow the NJ Meadowlands Commission to regulate flood-control activities within its geographic purview;
mandate the communication of boil-water notices to residents affected by flooding.
“The direction we’re moving in is to shore up those communities that sustained greatest impact from Hurricane Sandy and are potentially targets for such storms in the future,” said Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Newark), who chairs the committee and sponsored four of the bills.
Though a few dedicated supporters of home rule expressed muted dissent about the bills that seek to minimize local authority, even they acknowledged, in theory, the need for more regional thinking.
“I understand your intent,” Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Westwood) told Spencer more than once. “But I have to side with the (localities) being impacted.”
The beach management bill passed 4-2 despite Schepisi’s "Nay" vote and another from Assemblyman Scott Rudder (R-Medford) on similar grounds. Testimony from a representative of the New Jersey Association of Counties informed committee members that representatives from Ocean and Monmouth counties spoke against the companion Senate bill last winter, believing that despite a Senate amendment that allows localities to opt out of the transfer of duties, beach management is an activity best handled by the municipalities themselves.
But supporters countered that consolidation will result in untold cost savings and continuity from beach to beach. Jeff Tittel, of the Sierra Club, called it one of the most important commonsense approaches to restoring beaches. He also argued that consolidation could help promote tourism in a state where it’s cumbersome and potentially expensive for beachgoers to buy a separate access badge for every beach they want to visit.
"If you want to go to every beach on Long Beach Island in a day you would have to buy at least eight different badges," he said. "This legislation will do a lot to not only protect our beaches and promote tourism but will also provide cost savings by doing it countywide rather than town by town.”
After the hearing, Spencer added, “The whole idea is to create some uniformity.”
But the legislation has another objective: public access to public land. “When anything (detrimental) happens to these beaches (like storm damage) the first thing (municipalities) do is look to the state for help,” Spencer said. “So shouldn’t all of the state’s taxpayers have equal access to them?”
Using data collected in the 1970s, the DEP wrote its first Shore Protection Master Plan during Ronald Reagan’s first term as president. It hasn’t been updated since. So the Assembly environmental committee released a bill yesterday that would require the agency to revise the plan. But environmental advocates insisted that more work is needed on the legislation before the DEP gets to work.“We support this (bill) in concept but it should be strengthened,” said David Pringle of Clean Water Action.
Specifically, Pringle and other environmentalists argued that the plan, which currently determines only how the DEP should support existing land-use regulations and where it should allocate its resources, needs to broaden its scope.
Instead of keeping a narrow focus on documenting specific projects and plotting a priority-ranking system for distributing funds, as it does now, conservationists said the plan should be rewritten to incorporate current research on climate change, sea-level rise, water-quality protection, storm-water runoff, green building, and the restoration of natural systems.
The bill, as written, merely asks the DEP to update its protection projects and revise its funding formulas.
“It looks at shore protection projects in a vacuum,” Tittel said.
“Unless this bill is amended we are going to perpetuate the failed policies of the past,” Tittel said. “We will be sending money and resources out to sea in the next storm.”
When asked about the cost to rewrite the plan, Spencer answered that nothing’s been calculated yet. However, she said, “The cost of not doing anything could be far greater.” Tittel indicated that the federal government will cover the entire cost if it’s written to President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program. A Senate version of the bill has been pending in the Energy and Environment Committee since February, and a spokesperson for the DEP said the agency is reviewing the bill.
Committee members voted to release a bill that would prevent the commissioner of the DEP from waiving the need for a permit to grade or excavate a dune in all but the most time-sensitive emergencies. Under the current Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA), the commissioner may grant special permission to a public or private entity to make changes to dunes on its property. The bill seeks to repeal this provision.
Stacy McCormack of the clean-water advocacy organization American Littoral Society testified that, “Dune construction is a huge issue for flood mitigation,” and Tittel added that the Sierra Club considers this move to be long overdue.
“Even though CAFRA legislation calls for protection of dunes, those standards and protections are waived by the DEP commissioner all the time,” he said. “We believe this is an important loophole that needs to be closed.”
The bill passed by a vote of 5-1, with lone dissenter Schepisi saying, “I view it as trying to take away home-rule protections.”
The DEP is reviewing the bill; the companion Senate bill was released from committee in April by a vote of 3-2.
A bill to require certain public water system operators to directly alert customers about water-boil notices by phone, email, or text within 24 hours of a sewage spill or overflow passed unanimously out of committee. Immediately after Hurricane Sandy, many utility customers were not notified that sewage spills had rendered their water potentially unsafe to drink.
Committee members also passed a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Marlene Caride (D-Ridgefield) to give the NJ Meadowlands Commission authority to pursue flood-control activities.